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The Up Series (1964-2013)

16 Sep

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The “7 Up” project began in the mid-1960s as an episode of a British investigative current affairs program called “World in Action.” The near-40-minute episode, entitled “Seven Up!,” followed 14 children, all age 7, who were interviewed. The purpose of the program was to present “a glimpse of Britain’s future” and ended with the infamous quote, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The participants were chosen to represent different social classes in Britain in the 1960s.

Seven years later, when the children were 14, researcher-turned-director Michael Apted directed “7 Plus Seven” (or “14 Up!,” as it’s also known) with follow-up interviews. And because Apted believed that human lives reform in some manner within seven years, he would continue to follow these same participants (for the most part; a few dropped out, since there was no long-term contract requiring them to participate in each film) at ages 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and 56. (As of now, it’s unclear whether the series will continue at age 63.)

Watching these films as a whole, spanning five decades from “Seven Up” to “56 Up,” is a marvelous experience, capturing the truest essence of life possible for a documentary. It’s not only one of the best documentary projects of all time; it’s a real sociological study. It represents the lives of these people, they talk about what has changed every seven years and what hasn’t, and while we see the changes in each character, we still see who they were and get a sense that they are who they are. It’s like when you look at a photograph of yourself as a child—you know that you are the child and the child is you, but it’s difficult to comprehend the connection due to how much time has passed since the photograph was taken. And so, when each of these people in the “Up” series are shown as children and as adults, you notice the changes in each of them, but you also recognize some of the characteristics in them as children.

These are ordinary people—Tony, Suzy, Neil, Nick, Bruce, Jackie, Lynn, Sue, Symon, Paul, Andrew, John, Charles, and Peter. We don’t know them (though we feel like we do, through the films) and we can’t necessarily say that we at times are like them, because as the entire project indicates, no one is the same as another. But we do recognize parts of ourselves in some of these people that allow us to identify with them, want to know more about their lives, and become engrossed in everything else they have to say. Originally, the project was conceived as a way to make a political point about social class, but as Apted learned more about his subject’s lives, he lost sight of the bigger picture. But that’s fine, because the audience did too. He grew close to his subjects, so we did too.

The individual films in the series are all special in their own way. Some are more exciting and interesting than others, but there are hardly any downsides. The first two (“Seven Up!” and “7 Plus Seven”) are fairly standard, but that’s not bad at all. It starts to get very interesting at around “21 Up,” which shows the growth and maturity of the subjects as they prepare for the rough road of life. After “28 Up,” which some a couple fascinating changes (which I’ll get to in a moment), it becomes clear what the (new) purpose of the project is.

Now let’s talk about the participants. Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are all from the East End of London. While Lynn has a family and career, Jackie and Sue each married young, became single mothers, and later divorced their husbands. Andrew, John, and Charles, each representing the rich upper class people who usually map out the lives of children. These three pretty much followed the path that was already set for them by their parents and society. Of these three, Andrew is the only one who has participated in all of the films, Charles quit after 21, and John skipped 28 and 42. Symon and Paul lived in a children’s home run by charity—since then, Paul emigrated to Australia and has lived there with a wife and children ever since, and Symon has gone through a divorce and remarriage. (It’s also reported that his ex-wife didn’t care for the project, while his current wife does. He and his wife are now foster parents.) Nick grew up on a farm but didn’t see himself working on it in the future; he instead grew up to study science and become a professor and nuclear physicist in the United States. He married before 28, though everyone who saw the film apparently felt the marriage was doomed, due to her commentary. Because of this, she didn’t return for 35 or 42, and by 49, Nick was divorced and remarried. Bruce was a quiet boy who wanted to be a missionary and became a teacher and traveled to places such as Bangladesh. One of the more pleasing developments in the series is when he is 35 and regrets not having been married and in “42 Up,” he is a newlywed. He’s now a devoted husband and father. Neil and Peter were middle-class boys living in Liverpool. Peter skipped 35, 42, and 49, and returned in “56 Up” (mainly to promote his band). (I’ll get to Neil in a moment.)

Of the 14 participants, three stand out most to me (and a lot of other people, for that matter). One is Tony, also from the East End. He’s a favorite because he’s so open and charismatic and one of the biggest supporters of the project, which means he’ll most likely stay with it till the end. He dreamed of being a jockey at age 7; at 14, he was an apprentice at a horse-racing stable; at 21, he talks about a race where he had a photo-finish, from which he keeps a photograph as a souvenir, but he had to move on from being a jockey and instead concentrated on being a taxi driver; at 28, he owned his own cab, got married, and started raising a family. One of the most poignant moments in the series comes from “42 Up,” when he sits with his wife and confesses an affair he had; a real rough patch in their relationship. But they still stayed together after his wife forgave him. A particularly funny moment in the series is in “56 Up” when he tells an anecdote about how he was recognized for the series by someone who wanted his autograph instead of Buzz Aldrin’s (Aldrin was Tony’s fare).

Suzy, who comes from a wealthy background, was always reluctant about doing the films, as she was forced to do it in the first place by her parents. She’s always said she would stop participating, but she kept coming back (probably because she feels obligated to do so after so many years). Suzy was a very shy girl growing up, and by 21, she formed a very negative opinion about marriage. The most dramatic change in the series is from her from age 21 to 28. When you see her in “21 Up,” she’s bitter, chain-smoking, and nervous. But then in “28 Up,” she’s cheerful and happy and married with children; a remarkable transformation.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Neil, from a Liverpool suburb. Neil is the most complex person in the series and his story is consistently captivating and unpredictable. As a child, he was happy and excited, though you have to wonder what his home life was like, since he is also saying things like “I don’t want to have any children because they’re always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.” I don’t know many 7-year-olds who would talk like that, especially while smiling (like he does), so it may be indicated that Neil’s happiness was hiding something. By 21, he was living in a squat after dropping out of school after one term. By 28, he was homeless and living in Scotland; in “28 Up,” he provides the most heartbreakingly frank statement about why he will never have children: he’s afraid the child will inherit the most negative traits from him. Many people thought Neil would be dead by 35, but he was still alive, though his life had hit rock bottom. But luckily, by 42, he was able to put his life back together; he’s been involved in local council politics as a Liberal Democrat and he’s even made friends with Bruce, who let him live with him for a while.

This is what the most compelling documentaries contain: real human drama. You don’t find movie characters as fascinating as Neil.

Another special thing about the “Up” series is that with each film being released every seven years (and it still remains to be seen whether we will see “63 Up” in 2020), it allows the audience to think back about themselves and how their lives have changed in the past seven years. That reason (and more) is what truly makes the “Up” series special—it’s documentary filmmaking at its best.

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Reservoir Dogs (1992)

30 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Reservoir Dogs” was writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough effort. Released in 1992, it introduced what would be known now as his famous trademarks—large amounts of sharp dialogue and violence. It’s also known as a milestone in independent filmmaking and was a major influence in independent cinema. How does it hold up? Greatly. It’s still a riveting thriller. The violence is still bloody (while the heavier acts are offscreen, leaving it to our imagination, which is more horrifying); the dialogue is very fun to listen to, with lines such as “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?” and also with constant usage of the “f” word as poetry, like David Mamet’s writing; the characters are still enjoyable despite their horrific deeds and the actors playing them are spot-on; the non-linear way of storytelling (which Tarantino would use to greater effect in his next film, “Pulp Fiction”) works in the film’s favor; and no matter how many times you watch it, whether you know the big plot twists or not, it’s still an exhilarating film that grabs you and doesn’t let you go until it’s over.

The film mostly shows us what crime films are afraid to show us, which has since been copied for years to come (hello, Martin McDonagh)—the humor, the conversations about things that aren’t very important, and even the sloppiness. It’s set up in the opening scene, which shows eight men, led by mob boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) who name them after colors (Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, and so on), eating breakfast at an L.A. diner before they set off on a big heist. They talk about Madonna discography and the importance of tipping waitresses before they embark on their planned mission. It’s a wonderfully well-written scene that introduces the characters and lets us know we’re in for an unusual but fun ride.

The heist is never actually seen, but the aftermath lets us know quickly that it went horribly wrong, as the cops arrived on scene and started shooting, causing the gangsters to shoot back. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), the cool-headed one, speeds away from the scene with Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), who was shot in the stomach. He takes him to an abandoned warehouse, which is the rendezvous for the whole group, and he comforts him for a while, until the paranoid Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) arrives. He believes the whole thing was a setup, since the police apparently responded too quickly. He and Mr. White try to figure out how to handle the situation, with one of their gang dying on the floor, several others missing, and the psychopathic Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) having killed many civilians during the heist when police came. Mr. Blonde shows up with a little surprise in the trunk of his car…

The casting for this film couldn’t be more perfect. Each one of the actors does a spectacular job, bringing these characters to life. In particular, Michael Madsen is delightfully sadistic and calm; a scene in which he tortures someone for answers is both hard to watch and fun to watch. Harvey Keitel is calm, cool, and collected; Tim Roth is charismatic; and Steve Buscemi is excellent as a distrustful guy trying to make sense of things. Also effective are Lawrence Tierney as the leader, Chris Penn as his hot-headed son, Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown, and Eddie Bunker as Mr. Blue. Tarantino also gives his characters well-established personalities so that they’re not stereotypes but real people who do shocking things and yet show their humanity at certain points.

There’s a big twist revealed midway through the film, but I wouldn’t dare ruin it for those who haven’t seen it. To see it for the first time is not to know anything about the surprisingly well-developed plot. That way, you can enjoy its many twists and turns. But even if you already know it, you shouldn’t let that ruin it. I’ve seen this movie 10 times already, and I never let my knowledge of the central twist spoil it because it makes way for more interesting developments, flashbacks, and fun dialogue. Also, not only is the film wonderfully-written and intelligent, but it’s also fun to watch. It’s visceral, the cinematography is well-handled, and you can see Tarantino’s early influences from directors such as Scorsese and John Woo while adding some style of his own.

Simply put, “Reservoir Dogs” is an unforgettable movie. It’s funny, it’s chilling, it’s fun, it’s energetic, and it’s just all-around great. It’s a film I could watch numerous times for those very reasons. And Quentin Tarantino has only gotten better since then.

Newsies (1992)

26 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Newsies” is based on a true story. However, it’s a story I couldn’t care less about. Here it is so I’ll set it up for you: In 1899 in New York City, when publishers Joseph Pulitizer and William Hearst raised the price of the newspapers that the homeless, orphaned children are forced to sell, the newsboys went on strike and won.

Not a very exciting idea for a lively family movie produced by the Disney studio, is it? And get ready for this—“Newsies” is also a musical. It was Disney’s first live-action musical, in a long, long time. At the time, it was followed by successful animated Disney musicals “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” with “Aladdin” still to be released soon. And get this—the songs in “Newsies” are actually composed by Alan Menken, who provided the songs for the two titles I just mentioned. With this talent writing the songs for a live-action musical for Disney, you’d expect something great.

But the story is what really let it down. Why the Disney studio, along with director/choreographer Kenny Ortega (responsible for the choreography for such films as “Xanadu” and “Dirty Dancing”), chose this story with their new big production is beyond me. And what’s worse is that they tell the story loosely, which I wouldn’t mind if it meant to add more tension into the mix—but why turn the people into caricatures?

Most of the newsboys are stereotypes, to start with. But then there’s Joseph Pulitzer, played by Robert Duvall. He gets the worst of the treatment, written as a one-note tyrant of the newspaper business and just a slimy villain. Performed by Duvall (under a fake beard), he does an inconsistent job—when he’s not stiff, he’s over-the-top. It’s an off-putting performance.

Before I get into another big problem with the movie, let me make it clear very fast—I like this movie. There’s more to the movie than the story, the stereotypes, and…another bad performance I’ll get to later. There’s a real lightheartedness to it. It’s energetic, it’s fun, it’s upbeat. Most of the characters are likable. And what’s more important for a musical—the movie is at its liveliest when the music arrives. The production values are present and the choreography is impressive, with some outstanding dance numbers (the young actors, in particular, had to endure weeks of training, learning how to dance).

And as the production numbers impress, the songs are quite enjoyable and memorable. In particular, “Carrying the Banner,” which is the opening medley for the newsies, is a pretty appealing tune and the song that appears in the middle—entitled “I’m the King of New York,” sung by the newsies and a friendly reporter (played by Bill Pullman)—is incredibly entertaining. But my favorite is a number featuring Christian Bale, as the leader of the newsies, solely performing and dancing to the song “Santa Fe,” in which he enacts his fantasy of leaving New York and making his own free living in Santa Fe. This musical number is a tribute to the choreography of lone stars dancing in the street—think of the leads in “Oklahoma” or “Singin’ in the Rain.”

OK, here it is, now that I’ve been building this up—the absolute worst thing in an otherwise entertaining movie. It’s a performance by the usually comfortable Ann-Margaret in a most uncomfortable performance as a nightclub singer who acts as the newsies’ chum. But there isn’t a clear description of this character, because she only has two scenes (both of which feature production numbers), and there’s a slight indication that there may have been something going on with the boys that Disney isn’t allowed to show. Ann-Margaret is so awkward and so over-the-top in this role. And here’s the worse part—are you ready for this one? Her character serves no purpose whatsoever to the story, and with her limited number of scenes, you could take her out of this movie entirely and not have missed a single thing.

Oh, and should I add that her second musical number has the worst song in the movie, “Hard Times?” I forgot about this song when mentioning the others. I was hoping not to remember it, because it’s so annoying. But it’s stuck in my head because it’s so catchy. Thanks a lot, guys.

While Duvall and Margaret are both completely off-putting, the young actors do good jobs. Christian Bale has a charming screen presence and turns in a truly fine performance as Jack, the newsies’ bad-boy-turned-good leader. The others—including David Moscow (“Big”) as Jack’s bright new friend David, Max Casella (Vinnie from “Doogie Howser, M.D.”) as the wise-guy Racetrack, and Gabriel Damon as Brooklyn bad boy Spot Conlon—perform good solid work.

So the musical numbers and the likable spirit of things is enough reason for me to recommend “Newsies.” Is it a triumph? As a musical, yes. As a story and as a historical drama, it’s better off being tampered with. While the film does indeed have its flaws, it’s an innocent, enjoyable way to spend two hours.

Medicine Man (1992)

16 May

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How could John McTiernan, the director of “Predator” and “Die Hard,” have made a film that was so unbelievably boring? It’d be one thing if “Medicine Man” was dumb and witless, which it is (don’t get me wrong). But “Medicine Man” is really an endurance exam, with the questions being: How long can I endure a bad actress and a practical “king-of-cool” actor constantly bantering with one another? How long can I endure a story that is all tell and no show? How long can I stay awake?

Man, did I hate this movie. At least with most bad movies, there is at least something interesting to keep you watching and hoping something good will ultimately come of it. But this is just much ado about nothing.

Lorraine Bracco stars as a Bronx scientist who talks tough and takes no nonsense. Sean Connery is an eccentric researcher who has been living in the Amazon rainforests for about six years, studying jungle potions and sickness cures. Bracco is out there because the organization she works for (which is funding his experiments) wants to know what he’s doing out here in the jungle with Indian natives. What she discovers is that Connery has actually found a cure for cancer. But because he’s running low on it, having experimented on it too much, he and Bracco must trek across the jungle to get to a place where a lot of this cure can be found. But they must hurry, as the place is about to be bulldozed.

Now to be fair, the look of the film is first-rate. You do get a sense that you’re there in the Amazon rainforest, hiking along with these characters. But when there’s nothing substantial in the dialogue or characterization, and also when there’s hardly any action to be found here, do you really want to stay here for about an hour and 40 minutes?

There’s also a nice scene involving a rope-and-pulley setup that allows Connery and Bracco to make their ways up to the treetops. From there, they can get a good view of the land, and so do we.

But then it’s back to the ground, where our main characters are. Sean Connery is sometimes known for making anything watchable, and while he does do a decent job here, he’s not enough to save the movie from its overlong, boring dialogue scenes that try to whimsically entrance us with the joys and mysteries of nature and a non-too-subtle environmental message. Half of the time, I couldn’t keep up with what was going on, and ultimately I didn’t care.

I’m sure Lorraine Bracco can deliver a fine performance, given the right director (see her work in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”). But it’s obvious that this actress has a very limited acting range, and that’s clearly shown here. Bracco is teeth-grindingly awful here. She’s never convincing, she’s stilted in her line deliveries, and she never shuts up. And all her character does is complain, even when she shouldn’t. I get that her character is liberated, and Connery is supposed to ease her into some sort of romantic relationship, but this is just too much. Also, I didn’t buy any of the “chemistry” that supposedly was brought upon by Connery and Bracco together—they’re equally boring here. All they do is banter, banter, banter. Here’s a sample exchange, upon first encountering each other: “I’m not a girl!” “The hell you’re not!” “I’m your research assistant!” “The hell you are!” And it’s all downhill from there. “Romancing the Stone,” this is not. It’d be one thing if this was actually trying to be a “Tarzan” picture; it’d at least be fun. But instead, “Medicine Man” is just a bore.

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

5 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“My Cousin Vinny” is a comedy that relies not just on the comedic talents of the actors, but on its script. This is one of those comedies where the screenplay—material and dialogue—is funny, whether the film itself stinks or not. Luckily, while “My Cousin Vinny” has its problems, it also plenty of laughs and great acting that make it a treat to watch.

The movie opens as two young men on their way to college stop at a gas station in a small town in Alabama. Shortly after they leave, they’re arrested. At first, they think it’s because of the can of tuna that they didn’t realize they’d lifted from the store. But they soon realize—though, a little later—that they’re suspected of murdering the store’s clerk. (I love this exchange: “You think we’re being booked for shoplifting?” “No, you’re being booked for shoplifting. I’m being booked for accessory to shoplifting.”) So the boys—played by Ralph Macchio (“The Karate Kid”) and Mitchell Whitfield—need a lawyer to defend their case. Luckily, Macchio has a cousin named Vinny (Joe Pesci)…who has graduated law school, but passed the bar only after the eighth time. This is his first trial. He lies to the judge (Fred Gwynne) about handling plenty of cases and is held in contempt for sporting his leather jacket in the courtroom. But who knows? He could have what it takes to win this case in the end.

Accompanying Vinny from New York to Alabama is his fiancée named Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei). She has a loud mouth, a hard Brooklyn accent, and a tendency to stick out in this small town like a sore thumb (with her sexy attire and camera in hand), but she’s supportive and lends Vinny a helping hand, even though Vinny is reluctant to give it. But who knows? She might know a thing or two that could be important to the case.

The running joke is that Vinny is a terrible lawyer, since this is his first case and the boys’ lives rest in his hands to prove their innocence. Surprisingly, this works. Any smaller case, like robbery or drugs, and this probably would’ve proven to be too believable to be funny—I could be wrong. But in this murder case, the more unbelievable it is, the more agitated and nervous Vinny is, and the funnier it is as a result.

Pesci’s funny, but even funnier is Marisa Tomei as Vinny’s fiancée Lisa, who is just lovable. The character’s street-smart personality and her ways of interpreting things or dealing with things make for more-than-effective comic timing. There is not a false note in Tomei’s performance—beauty, brains, and wisecracks are what the character requires. Tomei delivers more than that. She’s perfect in this movie, and she displays great chemistry with Pesci.

There are many laughs in this script. Highlights include: Whitfield’s misunderstanding when he first meets Vinny (while in jail); Vinny’s “explanation” after being asked how his clients plead; Lisa’s reaction when Vinny goes hunting with the prosecutor (Lane Smith); Gwynne’s misreading of the word “yoot” (“youth”); the public defender (Austin Pendleton) not letting out a complete sentence half the time. Plenty of good, funny stuff in this movie, and I haven’t listed them all. It wouldn’t be fair. But I can say that the final scenes of this movie, in which the getaway car is in question, are brilliantly written and very funny as well.

“My Cousin VInny” does have a few hit-and-miss jokes and the movie loses focus of the two boys, so it’s a little hard to worry about them. But with Pesci and Tomei’s performances and a script with plenty of goods, “My Cousin Vinny” is a terrific comedy about trial and error.

Wayne’s World (1992)

20 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Is it possible to give a movie like “Wayne’s World” a four-star rating? In my case, it is. It’s a comedy based on the Saturday Night Live sketch “Wayne’s World” featuring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. The sketches are funny, but strangely, the movie might actually be funnier. I can watch this movie several times and still be able to laugh and smile at it. That’s a sign of a great comedy. So in that case, I am giving four stars to “Wayne’s World” and am proud of it.

Just consider this a more personal review.

Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) are two 20something party dudes who have their own cable access show in the basement of Wayne’s parents’ house…where Wayne still lives. On the show they usually talk about babes, guitars, and weird stuff, like the invention of a vacuum cleaner that also cuts people’s hair. The SNL sketch was always a recording of their show; the movie stretches it further than that (it has to, doesn’t it?) to show Wayne and Garth hanging out with their friends and going on a night on the town, seeking local parties.

The plot is admittedly predictable. An ad executive named Benjamin (played with inspired casting by Rob Lowe) and his producer, Russell (Kurt Fuller, very funny in a deadpan way), want to use their show to sell it to a client (Brian Doyle-Murray) who owns a video arcade chain. Benjamin offers Wayne and Garth a lot of money for doing the show, while having the client sponsor the show and clean it up a little. Things get complicated when Benjamin begins hitting on Wayne’s new girlfriend—an Asian rock singer named Cassandra (Tia Carrere). When it seems like things are going wrong for Wayne and Garth, can they be right again?

“Wayne’s World” is in the same spirit of movies like “Bill and Ted” and “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”—anything can happen just to get a laugh, and I mean anything. We have the guys singing along loudly to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we have breaking-the-fourth-wall jokes, we have the subtitle “gratuitous sex scene” when it looks like Wayne and Cassandra are about to…you know (the movie is PG-13 so no actual sex is shown on camera), we have the subtitle “Oscar clip” when Wayne makes his version of a sad speech (“I never learned to read!”), and more funny jokes. The funniest bit is a satire on product placement—in one scene, six products are brought in to get their plugs (the sequence begins when Wayne holds up a slice of Pizza Hut pizza, with the logo shown on the pizza box, and says, “Contract or no, I will not bow to any sponsor”) and it’s only that one scene where that happens. It doesn’t happen anywhere else in the entire movie.

Wayne and Garth are both likable and very funny. Mike Myers plays Wayne as a Bill Murray type of smart aleck, with a touch of Woody Allen as he addresses the camera frequently. Dana Carvey plays Garth as a paranoid technogeek whose brain may have been fried by partying too much. This makes him an awkward person to be around, unless you know him very well, like Wayne does. I love the scenes in which they hang out together—they have too much time on their hands and when they’re not partying or doing their show, they play hockey in the neighborhood street (they move the net when a car is coming) and park outside of an air field so that they can sit on the hood of their car and anticipate the noise of the oncoming airplane above. You don’t expect scenes like these in a movie like this. They have a real whimsy to them. I suppose that’s what makes it more intelligent than “Bill and Ted” or “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”

Even if the plot is predictable, the jokes sure aren’t, and you’ll most likely enjoy “Wayne’s World” for its good nature, likable and funny characters. I love this movie, it’s hilarious, and I have no regrets in giving it four stars.

Scent of a Woman (1992)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In “Scent of a Woman,” Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is a shy Boston prep-school student who needs a good role model in his life. His mother and stepfather live in Oregon, and he and his stepfather don’t see eye-to-eye. And he’s not the most popular kid in a school where most of his classmates are spoiled by their wealthy fathers. Some of those classmates have pulled a prank on the headmaster, damaging his new Jaguar. Charlie knows who did it, but won’t snitch. However, if he doesn’t, he’ll be expelled. So, a disciplinary hearing is scheduled after Thanksgiving break to determine Charlie’s scholastic future.

Enter Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), a lonely, blind veteran. He’s an embittered man with two things that keep his spirit alive—his sense of humor and his romanticism. Charlie is working over the Thanksgiving weekend as his aide and companion. When he first meets him for an interview, Slade takes joy in making him feel as miserable as he feels. He uses sarcasm, anger, and abrasiveness to further confuse and slightly frighten Charlie.

In that first scene you see Slade, you get the feeling he enjoys doing this, as if his interviewees are his “victims.” And it’s probably not the best way for the audience to be introduced to this character, because he is so coarse that he comes so close to being a turnoff for the movie. But as performed by Pacino and written by Bo Goldman, the character gradually becomes more fascinating as the role and movie progresses. We can see why he acts this way and also why he isn’t such a miserable old fart.

“Scent of a Woman” takes these two characters, and their own stories, and brings them into a story that uses the reliable coming-of-age formula in which a young man is counseled by an older man who has lived through a lot and has a thing or two to teach his new pupil. In that case, these two characters seem just right for each other.

Anyway, it turns out Charlie gets the job of housesitting and looking after Slade. Charlie agrees to put up with more of Slade’s insults, mainly for the money. However, Slade has other plans in mind. Slade ropes Charlie into a trip to New York City to have a good time. Charlie tries to get away, as he is uncertain of whatever’s going to happen this weekend (and Slade has many tricks up his sleeve), and on top of that, he’s got the hearing to think about. But he has to do his job and keep Slade out of trouble…even though Slade is stubborn to keep making trouble.

Slade is blind, but he sees himself as a ladies’ man and tries to let Charlie in on his ideas about women. Slade sees women as the most exotic and beautiful creatures on Earth, and even believes he can tell a lot about a woman by her scent—hair color, eye color, perfume, etc. And while his ideas may seem old-fashioned (and being in the military most of his life, he has never really known a woman very well), Charlie can’t argue with him…especially after his charm works with an attractive young woman, Donna (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom, in one of the movie’s best scenes, he shares a tango. Slade and Charlie meet Donna at a hotel ballroom, and during conversation, Slade is finally able to convince her to tango with him.

Charlie doesn’t trust every of Slade’s actions, especially when Slade drinks heavily. He’s constantly on guard whenever Slade has something in mind that he neglects to let Charlie in on beforehand. Sure, riding in a limo and staying at a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria is nice, but Slade has already mentioned that he’s going to enjoy everything New York has to offer before committing suicide. What can Charlie do except respond politely to keep Slade from being more extreme, until he can find some way to stop him if he’s serious about killing himself?

Al Pacino was not going to let this film go down. He knows a lot rides on this character of Col. Slade, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he forced himself to give the “performance-of-a-lifetime” for this role. Because “Scent of a Woman” rides mostly on his performance, the character, and the central relationship between Slade and Charlie, Pacino’s effectiveness is all the more welcome, to say the least. He delivers a great portrayal of a man who has a vindictive outlook on life with a few ways of making things interesting for him. And who can deliver a hearty “hoo-ah” every now and then better than him?

Chris O’Donnell is solid as Charlie, playing a nice kid to sympathize with. Most of the story is seen through his eyes.

This complicated relationship these two characters share—in that one is going to learn something from the other—is executed brilliantly. It’s believable and doesn’t go for the easy way through. The “easy way” would be for these two to befriend each other early on, but “Scent of a Woman” has them keep their distances, so that Slade is doing his thing and Charlie is staying on guard. And then when it comes to the tense moments when they need to help each other, you feel what each person is going through and sense how it all came to this.

Everything leads to the final act, in which Charlie’s scholastic future is on the line. Charlie is pushed into telling what he knows about the school prank, and there may or may not be a way out of this with his honor intact. It’s amazing how, without giving much away, everything that was set up before seems to come together for this.

“Scent of a Woman” is often criticized for its running-time length of two hours and 37 minutes. I don’t care about how long it had to be. It was as long as its storyline needed it to be. In fact, I could watch this go on for another half-hour, if given another plot element. As most film critics say it, no great movie is too long. And “Scent of a Woman” doesn’t feel as long as it would seem.

I think “Scent of a Woman” is a damn good movie. The performances are brilliant, the writing is intelligent, the music score by Thomas Newman is excellent, every setup has its payoff, and the whole film has a skillful and intriguing feel. What else can I say but…hoo-ah!